Sep 14, 2020
The 10 best comics maxi-series (part 2 of 3)
As promised, I continue to take a look at the “maxi-series” format and explore my top 10 favorites of all time. If you missed the first part of this list, you can read it right here. And now, on with part two.
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6. Punisher: Welcome Back, Frank
As hard as it might be to believe, there was a time when someone in authority at Marvel had no damn clue as to what Frank Castle was about. I don’t know if some PMRC-type group complained that the Punisher was too violent and they had to make him less gritty, or someone thought it might be fun to, as they say, “subvert our expectations” and give the fans what they didn’t want, but the Punisher at one point became a literal angel of vengeance who went around killing demons or something. The concept was so ludicrous that writer Garth Ennis gave this chapter of Frank Castle’s life a mere two or three sentences of attention in Welcome Back, Frank, hand waving it all away. No one I know complained of the passing of “ghost Frank” and Garth Ennis was celebrated as a modern day literary genius by comic fans everywhere. Well, I think there was a couple fans in Seattle who complained, but that’s just a rumor.
Welcome Back, Frank tells the story of the Punisher’s triumphant return to form as he reminds the criminal scum of New York City why they used to be afraid of the man wearing a stylized skull on his chest and using an arsenal that would give boners to NRA members. There’s almost no questioning the morality of Frank’s war on crime, or of his flaunting the justice system that lets bad guys walk free. Nope, it’s a cathartic, wonderfully creative orgy of violence where Frank culls NYC’s criminal population as he declares war on the Gnucci crime family and everyone who happens to get in the way. All of this is illustrated by Steve Dillon, who’s able to provide the most hilarious expressions on the faces of people, and also bears.
The art fits in perfectly with Ennis’ cynical style of writing, as often people either look utterly clueless or contemptuous. And that in large part is what makes the series work for me. Welcome Back, Frank almost never takes itself too seriously; Ennis realizes that the concept of what amounts to a serial killer with a very specific set of guidelines in choosing his victims, able to openly defy numerous law enforcement agencies, and kill literally hundreds of bad guys without anyone able to slow him down for longer than a New York minute, is pretty ludicrous. So just sit back and enjoy the ride, “big boy”.
Welcome Back, Frank is not without its flaws. The series sometimes feels like Garth is padding things a bit. The fight with the Russian, for example, takes two damn issues, and Frank sustains so much damage (on top of the bullet wounds he’s already recovering from… and bear wounds… and keep in mind he’s a Vietnam vet, so he’s well into his fifties at this point, at least) you have to assume his latent mutant powers kicked in. The whole subplot regarding the three vigilantes feels like filler, and one never really takes these three jokers all that seriously. Even Ennis has Frank dispatch them with barely a second thought. Ennis could have used all this space in the comic to show that if the Punisher had instead inspired normal people to take up his violent vigilante ways, perhaps he could have used it as a platform to discuss the merits—or lack thereof—of the Second Amendment and concealed carry permits. In the first Death Wish movie from the ’70s, Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey’s vigilantism inspired New Yorkers fed up with rampant crime to take a stand, so how would the Punisher’s war on crime influence normal people? Sadly, we never see this. That being said, I do appreciate that Ennis has his tongue stuck firmly in his cheek this time out, which would have flown in the face of the book’s tone. So with that in mind, we got the three stooges of vigilantism.
Another problem is Garth Ennis’ attitude towards superheroes. Anyone who’s read The Boys doubtless has seen how the man seems to loathe the genre. He all but totally character assassinates Daredevil in a scene where Punisher sadistically forces him to make a choice to either kill the Punisher or allow the Punisher to kill a mobster. As someone who read Frank Miller’s original run on Daredevil, I know Matt Murdock can go to a pretty dark place, even at one point shooting Frank Castle to prevent him from escaping. Castle’s actions here seemed so utterly out of character for him, but maybe he’s still bitter about Daredevil shooting him before.
It might sound like I’m really down on the series, but you can still love and appreciate a work despite whatever imperfections you feel it might have. Welcome Back, Frank is a hell of a read and one of the most definitive Punisher stories.
5. Batman: The Long Halloween
There are many legendary duos in the comic industry: Lee/Kirby, Lee/Ditko, Byrne/Claremont, Layton/Michelinie, Moenich/Gulacy, Snyder/Capullo. When you consider all of those collaborations, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale must certainly be added to that list. Daredevil: Yellow, Spider-Man: Blue, and especially Batman: The Long Halloween were among their greatest collaborations. A thirteen issue series that explored the early years of the Dark Knight, Long Halloween showed the fall of the Maroni crime family and organized crime in general in Gotham City as it was replaced by the “freaks” of Batman’s rogues gallery. It was also the origin of Two-Face, as we saw Harvey Dent’s emotional and moral decline. We see the fall of a good man, corrupted by the monsters he swore to destroy. You can see how this series in part inspired The Dark Knight.
There’s a scene where Bruce Wayne actually says “I believe in Harvey Dent”, and in at least one chapter, the Falcone family hires super-villains to do their dirty work for them, not unlike the way the mobsters in The Dark Knight turn to the Joker to counter Batman. (Christopher Nolan also used elements of the Frank Miller story Batman: Year One in Batman Begins, showing his consistent good taste.) At the same time, this series’ first issue had a mob wedding and Harvey Dent taking down license plate numbers, reminiscent of the movie The Godfather. Hey, even George Lucas was inspired by The Hidden Fortress, so if you’re going to be inspired, let it be by a work of high quality, right? Before Nolan’s movies were produced I had felt this thirteen-issue series would have made an outstanding TV mini-series. Of course, that was 1996-97, and that sort of thing was rare even on cable TV, so it was just a silly pipe dream of mine. But today? I would much prefer to see the new Batman project be two seasons on Amazon than a new movie.
Loeb’s artistic style is amazing, dark, and brooding, making great use of light and shadow and negative space as well as his use of both black and white and color. Speaking as someone who’s seen his fair share of film noir, you can certainly see what the artist’s inspirations are. Some of these artistic elements date as far back as Sale’s work on the Image Comic Deathblow, and you can see how his style has evolved and been perfected over the years.
A large part of what makes this story so outstanding is that it’s a bona-fide mystery. One of the things I think has been missing from the Batman movies is a lack of the character being portrayed as a detective. Here, we have Batman faced with a puzzle: Who is Holiday? Who is the serial killer wiping out mobsters? (And I won’t spoil it for you. Buy the trade paperback now. Hint: it’s not Batman. Really.) I can remember during the time this series was running, Wizard Magazine was laying odds on who Holiday was, with people like Dent and Catwoman being considered legit suspects, among others. Loeb and Sale keep you guessing up until the very end.
Loeb and Sale get Batman, and they understand what makes him tick. He’s dedicated to the pursuit of justice and is willing to go to almost any lengths to achieve it, making alliances with questionable people and using and possibly even abusing his powers as Bruce Wayne in order to thwart the Falcone family. It feels like a younger Batman, unsure of what his boundaries should be, and in seeing what befalls Harvey, perhaps that tragedy helps define him. And they captured the essence of every member of his rogue’s gallery, displaying the various kinds of madness on display, including Solomon Grundy’s simplicity and Selina Kyle’s unpredictability, struggling between her affection for Bruce, her attraction towards Batman, and her complex relationship with the Falcone family. This series is layered, like plot lasagna, delicious and rich and oh so satisfying.
Are there any flaws? Um, well, I suppose I wasn’t exactly crazy about the finale where Batman goes toe-to-toe with his entire enemy line-up. I get how Batman can use stealth, surprise, speed, and strength to overwhelm his opponents, but each of these guys should have been able to give him a tough time. This is still supposed to be a younger Batman, not at the height of his mental prowess. Maybe the Gotham City police should have been used in the finale somehow, with legions of armored shock troops and Captain Gordon coming to the rescue like the cavalry? But it’s a minor nit and a matter of personal taste, and hey, if Batman is young, that puts him at the height of his physical prowess. So maybe I should just shut up and love the comic for the masterpiece it is.
There are many good artists in the comics industry today. But there’s “good”, and then there’s Alex Ross. With Marvels, Kingdom Come, Earth X, his cover art for comics like Astro City and his magnificent posters, and even album art for bands like Anthrax and the DVD cover for the Flash Gordon re-release, the man has truly become a legend.
And in my mind, Justice is his magnum opus and almost impossible to top. Working with his Earth X collaborator Jim Krueger the pair deliver an epic storyline whose scope is tremendous. I have to say, when I was making this list, the toughest part was not choosing who would be on it. Oh yes, that was hard; But harder still was choosing what pieces of art I would use to represent Justice, because damn it, the entire twelve issues is chock full of some of the most spectacular imagery I’ve ever seen in a comic. Only George Perez’s work on JLA/Avengers can compete with what Ross delivers here.
The plot of the story is that the Legion of Doom, under Brainiac’s influence, wage an all-out war upon the Justice League and their allies in an attempt to bring them down once and for all. Interestingly enough, the goal is not world domination but the salvation of mankind, albeit under the control of the various Legion members. At best, it’s severely misguided altruism and at worst, it’s just a new coat of paint on the old world domination scheme. Ross and Krueger actually humanize some of the villains; whatever their motivations, the plot gives the Legion members an added depth.
Manipulated by a horrific nightmare of the Earth being destroyed, in their own twisted way they attempt to do something heroic. Of course, because it comes from bad motives, no good can come of it, because they’re being manipulated by Brainiac. I also love little things like Elongated Man’s perpetual inferiority complex regarding being compared to Plastic Man. I know some people might find that out of character for Ralph Dibny and maybe it is, but it amused me all the same. Maybe that’s because I never took either character all that seriously in the first place.
Ross certainly loves to play the nostalgia card this time out, using classic looks for different heroes; Green Lantern/John Stewart and Supergirl are both sporting their ’70s gear and I really don’t mind. And this was the series that really made me fall in love with Zatanna, since she’s featured so prominently. The story goes that Ross used his own wife as inspiration for the sorceress’ design. If so, I heartedly approve. And it might be just me, but when I look at Superman’s face, I’m seeing a little Christopher Reeve there.
I love all the designs, as Ross borrows from classic DC comics as well as the old Super Friends! cartoon series. Somehow, he even makes that stuff look cool. Damn, the more I think about it the more I feel maybe I should have placed this series higher on the list. Looking at the art all over again gives me an urge to start move the top four around. Should I have placed Justice higher on the list? Should it have bumped one of the top three down the ladder? Tune in next week and make up your own mind.